by Everett Arthur Niemela
At the beginning of World War II, I registered for the military draft like all men of my age. I didn't think I wanted to be a foot soldier or to be drafted into the Navy. The glamour outfit was the fast growing Army Air Force. The Air Force was still a part of the United States Army. The propaganda at that time glamorized the Air Force. In September 1942, I volunteered for the Air Force Cadets. This unit was for training pilots, navigators, and bombardiers. At the end of the training a recruit became a second lieutenant. The training was based on the type of training that was given at West Point, but this training only lasted one year.
When this shy farm boy went to Pittsburgh to volunteer, he wasn't very confident that he would qualify. After a physical examination and a written exam that lasted several hours, they said that they wanted me. I was sworn in. My picture was taken wearing a leather jacket, a leather helmet, and goggles. They sent this picture to the local newspaper with other information. It was all part of the recruiting propaganda.
I went home to wait to be called to active duty. In the meantime, I continued to work in the steel mill at Allenport. My job now was cutting steel bars to length with a gas cutting torch. The steel was used for making shells for the Army. I got into good shape physically because I had to stack those fifty pound billets so they could be carried away with a crane. This physical activity helped me endure the military training that was to come. As I waited to report for active duty, weeks turned into months without any news. People kept asking me when I was going to go. Other local young men with my former draft status were drafted and sent to Panama for basic training in the infantry. It was not until the first week in February that I was called to active duty. This was the first indication that there were more recruits than they needed
I reported to the Federal Building in Pittsburgh. There I met about one hundred other recruits. They put us on a train that was headed south. This was my first of many experiences on troop trains. They were always made up of old coach cars. The dirt and smoke residue from the large engines that pulled them was everywhere. There was no place to sleep so most men slept sitting up. I even saw a couple of small men crawl up on the baggage rack to sleep. Some trains had meager dining facilities, and others had none. We were sometimes served bag lunches. The most unique train that I remember had an open car with a large coal-burning stove. As we rolled down the track with this smoking kitchen, we passed across this car with our open mess kits. I remember it was an east-west trip. At least on that trip we got hot food.
After three days, my first troop train ended up in Miami, Florida. We were trucked over to Miami Beach late at night. The trucks' headlights were painted black with just small slits open. This was part of the blackout along the coastal areas. We pulled up in front of the Strathhaven Hotel on Second Avenue. It was going to be our home for the next month. We were assigned sleeping quarters with four men to a room. Ours faced the ocean. We were finally able to wash three days of dirt off our bodies. We looked like coal miners. Everyone was extremely tired. The waves of the Atlantic Ocean made such soothing sounds. This was the first time I had been near an ocean.
Nobody in our room heard roll call the next morning. We were rudely awakened by a shouting sergeant telling us to get our you-know-whats down to roll call in front of the hotel. This gentleman turned out to be our drill sergeant for the next month. Sergeant Bowers was a ruddy-skinned career soldier from West Virginia. He taught us how to march and how to do all the military maneuvers. When it was time to march to the dispensary for our shots, he was there. He also marched us to physical training classes, V.D. lectures, gas mask lectures, and any training film that was needed. He had a great voice for calling cadence. In order to rest his voice he encouraged us to sing marching songs such as Working on the Railroad and Alouette, the French-Canadian song. Sometimes someone would sing the lead part with the rest of us responding on the chorus.
Our unit consisted of about one hundred men and was called a squadron, instead of the army term company. The streets of Miami Beach were a busy and noisy place. There were these squadrons of men marching in all directions, and each unit was singing a different song. When we passed other squadrons the singing usually became louder so the cadence of the unit was not disrupted. After Sergeant Bowers felt comfortable with us and believed he could trust us, he would march us up into some secluded alley and shoot dice with anyone who want to take part. I believe he felt that he could make some extra cash. He knew that many of his recruits were from families that were wealthy. There were many college boys in our squadron. In fact at the beginning of the war some college education was required in order to be a cadet. This was no longer a required when I enlisted.
After four weeks at Miami Beach we shipped off to school at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio. This was another delaying tactic. It wasn't done before. There was no place to fit us into the regular Cadet program. It was apparent that they had more volunteers than they needed. The Air Corp had these college programs throughout the United States.
At Mount Union College we spent one half day in classes; the other half day was spent in military and physical training. Everywhere we went on campus, we marched. Each classroom size group had a designated cadet officer to march us to class. After we filed into the classroom we stood at attention while the cadet officer saluted the professor and announced to him that all men were present or accounted for. The old professor would then give our leader a sloppy salute. We always laughed at the different kinds of salutes we got. We had a cadet sergeant-major in charge of the whole group. He had attended a private military school. There were three regular army officers who saw that everything was running smoothly. During our four months at Mount Union College we had ten hours of flight training at the Canton Airport. The planes used were light fabric covered planes such as Piper Cub, Taylorcraft, and Aronca. My training was done in an Aronca. We practiced takeoffs, landings, stalls, and spins. The civilian instructor would have me fly to a country crossroads where he showed me how to pull the plane up into a stall and then kick it over into a spin. As we headed straight down toward the crossroads it was easy to count our spins. After his demonstrations, I would have to do it.
One of the fellows from Pittsburgh had a car hidden away not far from the college. We had Sundays off, but we were not supposed to leave town. One Sunday a group of us decided to sneak home. We started early Sunday morning and drove to Pittsburgh. Our driver let us off at the City-County Building with instructions to meet there later that day. I caught a trolley to Roscoe, which was an almost two hour trip. I then walked up to the farm. There was a surprise family reunion, and then I was off to Pittsburgh again. We met at the designated place and then drove back to Alliance, Ohio. On the road between Salem and Alliance someone yelled, "It's the Green Hornet!" We all hid ourselves as much as possible. What was happening was that our commanding officer, First Lieutenant Abrusso, was coming from the opposite way in his green convertible that we had named the Green Hornet. We were not supposed to be out of town. He either did not see us, or he chose to ignore what he saw. If we were caught in certain violations we were given demerits. Demerits came from such things as an untidy room, dirty shoes, and curfew violations. With a few demerits, a cadet was required to walk a tour. A tour consisted of walking back and forth with a rifle in a designated area for one or more hours. This was done on our free time.
After four months at Mount Union we were sent to the cadet classification center near San Antonio, Texas. Here we were given another mental test that lasted many hours. This was the beginning of a variety of tests. There were motor skills tests, depth perception tests, and a peripheral vision test. We were interviewed by a psychologist and given a psychological test. In between time we had K.P., physical training, and retreat parades. After a month of this evaluation I was chosen for pilot training. I felt very lucky because this is what most of the men wanted. The ones with good mathematics abilities were generally chosen to be navigators. Some were eliminated, and the rest were classified as bombardiers. Very few wanted to be bombardiers.
I was sent across the road to the pilot preflight training school. The discipline was very strict here. Again, we had classroom work one half of ? the day, with physical and military training the rest of the day. We had elaborate retreat parades at sundown. Cadet officers wore sabres, and the entire parade ground was alive with military ritual as the flag was lowered. The march of choice of the band was the Colonel Bogey March. I developed a heat rash from doing calisthenics and running under the hot south Texas sun. There were three answers that we could give. One was yes sir, the second was no sir, and the third was no excuse sir. The barracks had to be scrubbed clean and the bed made up so tight that you could bounce a quarter off of it. After one month of training we were given a pass to go into town. On the morning that we were to get our first pass into San Antonio, we had to run three miles. That didn't slow us down because we were in good physical condition.
At the end of the pre-flight training I was told that I didn't take code fast enough and that I would have to leave the cadet system. This was a blow to my ego. I had adapted to the discipline, and I was ready to go to flight school. It was the worst day in my young life. To have one's soul warped by disappointment is not pleasant. Afterward, I just avoided talking about it. It wasn't until recently that I realized what was happening at the time. One of the men in our Sewickley Senior Men's Club gave his biography. He came through the cadet system right after me, and his entire class was eliminated from the cadets. I also read similar stories in the Eighth Air Force newsletters. They just had too many pilots, and they would not even get past the classification center.
I was next sent to a reassignment officer for a discussion of possible military career changes. This major was a sympathetic gentleman from Boston. He asked me if I still wanted to fly. I told him that I was disappointed and that I still wanted to fly. He smoothed things over and said maybe I could reapply for the cadets sometime. His suggestion was that I go to aircraft mechanics school and then to aerial gunnery school. This would qualify me to be an engineer-gunner on an air crew. In this capacity, I would be in charge of the six enlisted men on a bomber crew. As this discussion was taking place taps was played over the post public address system. We had to stand at attention while this was going on. It was eleven o'clock, November 11, 1943. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month was the moment we stopped to honor; World War I ended at this time in 1918. This is a moment in my life I will always remember. Under earlier conditions, when there was not an over supply of cadets, I could have been on a flight crew by this time.
Once again I was on a troop train from hot southern Texas to cold and windy Amarillo, Texas in the north. There I was going to start B-17 mechanics school. Gone was the strict discipline of the cadet system. A more relaxed atmosphere prevailed here. The barracks were single story boxes anchored by thick wire braces on each side. I soon understood why this was necessary. This was the first time that I had seen brown snow. The wind whipped the snow across the prairie and picked up sand and dirt along the way.
While I waited for a mechanics school class to open, I did the usual military things to kill time. K.P. and clean-up are always on military list. One thing that the military did well was that their training schools were well organized. At this particular school we studied a different part of the airplane each day. At the end of the day we took a multiple choice test that was easy for the instructor to check. If we passed the test, we went to another classroom with another instructor the next day. At the end of this course I was off to south Texas again to attend aerial gunnery school at Harlingen.
One thing I remember about this gunnery school was the number of orange trees. On our walk from the barracks to mess hall we walked through an orange grove. The training at this school was again unusual and efficient. The idea was to make us capable aerial gunners in six weeks. We were supposed to be able to operate fifty caliber machine guns and be able to track enemy aircraft with the turret on the airplane. They started us out in what resembled a carnival shooting gallery. We shot at little moving duck cut-outs with a small rifle. Next we went to an oval track where we stood on the back of a truck with a shotgun anchored to a post. This shotgun was on a swivel. As the truck went around the track, clay disks were shot out in different directions from machines located around the track. The purpose was to sharpen our reaction time and to be able to read a target while moving. Next we learned how to operate turrets while on the ground. The guns in these turrets shot small pellets. In our third week we learned to operate real fifty caliber machine guns on a shooting range. We shot at what looked like a large sheet as it moved on a track behind a bunker. Each of us shot ammunition that was dipped with a different color. When they brought the sheet to us we could count the number of holes with our color on it.
The last three weeks of our training was spent on Padre Island in the Gulf of Mexico. This is where we finally got to fly. Conditions on Padre Island were very primitive. There was a landing strip, an airplane maintenance hangar, and a primitive mess hall. We slept in tents on little canvas cots. This is where I was first introduced to the B-24 bomber. In the logic of the military it was only natural that they were going to make me an engineer-gunner on a B-24 since I did my mechanics training on a B-17. Oh well; at least I was going to be flying.
We began our training over the wide open expanses of the Gulf of Mexico. First we learned to operate the turrets and waist gun positions by shooting guns that had film instead of bullets. They had fighter planes swoop down on us. The idea was to surprise us and check our reaction. We learned to communicate on the intercom the position of the fighter planes. Twelve o'clock high meant one was approaching from above. Six o'clock meant that a plane was coming in from below us. The positions on the face of a clock were the clue. When we landed the film was taken from the turret guns to see how well we had handled ourselves. This showed if we kept our guns on the incoming fighters.
We constantly had to study airplane identification. They didn't want us to shoot down friendly planes when we got into combat. The method was to show various aircraft on a screen. This was done slowly at first. As time went on the speed increased until it was only a flash. We could then identify German and Japanese planes in a blink of the eye, as well as British and American planes.
The next phase of our training was to shoot at splash targets in the water as we flew at low level over the Gulf of Mexico. Finally, we shot at ? targets towed by other aircraft. These were generally B-26's that were flown by women from the Women's Auxiliary. The large white sleeves extended a good distance from the tow plane by a rope. I think the women who flew those planes had a lot of courage. At the end of this six week training period, I was given my wings and my Corporal stripes.
After more than a year in Texas, it was time to move on to California to form a combat crew. First I rode a train to Pittsburgh to spend a few days at home. Then it was time to catch a train to Fresno, California. On an Army Air Force base near there is where we formed our combat crew. The crew consisted of Edward O'Boyle, the pilot from Philadelphia; William Falkner, the co-pilot, a Brooklyn policeman; William Foster, the bombardier from Boston; Raymond Pechan, the navigator from Ford City; Harvey McFarland, the radio operator from Oregon; Robert Henderson, the nose turret operator from California; Gerald Laney, the tail gunner from Texas; Charles Huff, the ball turret gunner from Buffalo; Marcello Garniel, the upper turret or waist gunner from Reno; and myself as engineer and gunner.
Our next trip was to Walla Walla, Washington, our B-24 crew training site. This was the time to hone the skills of the entire crew. Everyone was inexperienced, including the pilots. Besides flying to the gunnery and bombing ranges, the pilots needed intensive training in the B-24. This meant that at times only the pilot, co-pilot, and I, as the engineer, flew extra training missions. I remember one night when we did sixteen landings and takeoffs. On each of these landings I would squeeze back through the bomb bay to the waist windows so that I could check that the wheels were down and locked. Then I would run back up front to help the pilots with the flaps and to call off the airspeed so the pilot would know that he was coming in at the correct speed. He could then concentrate on the landing itself. I remember that as a very exhausting night.
During the latter part of crew training we flew down to Bythe, California for a two week training session. This area is a hot desert region. We did mostly high altitude training there. The temperatures went down to 20 degrees below zero at above 20,000 feet. When we came back to the desert the extreme change in temperature seemed to drain the body of energy. In one high altitude mission Jerry Laney's oxygen mask became frozen. He began to shake and lose consciousness. Robert Henderson was nearby and administered oxygen directly to him, and this revived him. The odd thing about this incident was that the two men didn't like each other. They all told me their stories, however. It pays to be a good listener. They thought that I knew more than I actually did. Maybe it was because it was my duty to keep a record of the plane's malfunctions, to make sure that everyone had a parachute, and to make sure everyone's flying time was recorded. I was as inexperienced as everyone else.
When we completed our training at Walla Walla, we went by train down to San Francisco and Hamilton Field. As we went through Oregon, Harvey McFarland's father waved to us at a country crossroads in the forest. Mac had called his father, a forest ranger, at one of our stops. Hamilton Field was a staging area for air crews. Here we got our overseas shots, all new flying equipment, and a new forty-five caliber pistol. We were able to see San Francisco a couple of times while we were there.
Next we were off across the country on a troop train to Fort Dix, New Jersey. We went through Pittsburgh, but there was no stop there. After a few days at Fort Dix we were loaded on trucks and taken to New York Harbor at night and loaded on the largest ship that I had ever seen. It turned out to be the Queen Elizabeth. There must have been at least 10,000 to 15,000 men aboard. We slept on hammocks that were stacked five layers high. This was deep down in the hold. After our first meal the next day, we got lost trying to find our way back. This ship seemed to be the size of a city. There were only two meals served each day: breakfast and dinner. Apparently that was all they could handle with the large number of people aboard. We dined in a beautifully paneled dining room. Before its wartime service, the Queen Elizabeth was a luxury liner. The British waiters were still working on board. The food was very poor. I remember the powdered eggs we had for breakfast. They weren't like the fresh eggs back on the farm. There was no lunch served so we would stand in line for hours to get some crackers or candy at the small P.X. There was nothing else to do so we didn't mind.
The ship was so fast that it traveled alone. Slow navy ships could not escort her. It took us six days to cross the Atlantic. She used an altered route each time. Slower ships would take two weeks to cross the ocean. With a little luck she could outrun a submarine. On our last night out, as we neared the coast of Ireland, we were put on emergency alert. Soon we could feel the ship vibrate from deep booming sounds. They were dropping depth charges from the rear of the ship. Apparently the radar had detected a submarine. We all carried an emergency K ration that was issued when we came on board. Granny (Marcello Garniel) opened up his K ration and started to eat it. We asked him why he was doing that. His response was that if we had to get into a life boat he'd share someone else's K rations. I think that food was very important to this poor boy from Reno, Nevada.
The ship landed at Edinburgh, Scotland. The ship was anchored way out in the harbor. A small boat took us ashore. There we boarded a troop train. This was a different kind of train than I had ever seen before. It consisted of compartments with an aisle or walkway on the side. The engine whistle had a higher pitch than the American steam engines. Everything was scaled down. While waiting on the railway siding, Scottish children would run along the train and call to us, You got any gum, chum? or Have you got any candy, Yank? I have never seen children with such rosy cheeks. It must have been the wet sea coast weather that did it.
The train took us down to Old Buckingham, an American Air Force base. The unusual thing about this base was that it was situated on farmland where farming was still taking place. We found our quonset hut (a metal barracks that was mass-produced) and settled down. First we had to clear out some of the equipment of a crew that was there previously. I don't know what happened to them. We met the crew whose bunks were next to us later in the day. The engineer whose name was Fleming was from Pittsburgh. They were notified that they had a mission the next morning. Before daybreak they were awakened to go to their mission briefing. That was the last time I saw them; they did not return from that mission. There was also a single crew member who stayed quietly in the corner of the barracks. He told me that he would never fly again even if he was court-martialed. He was the lone survivor of a crew that was shot down. When Jerry Laney heard all of this he began going to chapel every day. Jerry had been a boisterous ladies' man. Now he was very quiet and religious. This was a turn-off for me and several other crew members. In a few days our squadron commander, Major Heaton, took our pilots and myself on an orientation flight of the area. I had never seen a pilot like him. As soon as we were off the ground, he started to bank the plane sharply to the right before we had much altitude. Maybe he wanted to show our pilots what a B-24 could do or maybe he wanted to demonstrate his flying skills. There were more delays for us. Our pilot, Ed O'Boyle, was anxious to get into combat. He wanted to get a higher rank than his second lieutenant status. It didn't matter to the rest of us. I had received my promotion to sergeant earlier. If I had gotten a few missions in, I would have been promoted to staff sergeant, and there would be another promotion with more missions completed. Our co-pilot, who was the old man of the crew at twenty-eight, was not interested in promotions. When he took over in formation flying, beads of sweat would sometimes form on his forehead.
While we were in England, President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. Finally the European War ended on May 7, 1945. The war with Japan was still continuing. There was no need for us in Europe any longer. The whole 453rd Bomb Group was sent back to Fort Dix, New Jersey with the understanding that we would go into B-29 training and be sent to the Pacific. We came back in a convoy aboard a confiscated Italian ship. The trip back took a long two weeks due to the many slow ships in the convoy. The other ships in the convoy included the hastily manufactured Liberty ships. These were war-time cargo ships designed and produced by Henry J. Kaiser. Submarine warfare took a heavy toll on the merchant marine fleet. We were surrounded by navy destroyers and cruisers. There was still a fear of submarines. Not all German submarines were out of the Atlantic waters yet, and we were still at war with Japan. During a storm the tub-like Liberty ships would dip their noses into the water with the stern exposed. Sometimes the screw-propeller became exposed. The latrines on our ship were full of vomiting people most of the time. Some men ate very little during the trip. I had an upset stomach some of the time. Aboard were infantry men coming back from the land war in Europe. Many of them had war booty. They tried to sell us things they had picked up such as pistols, Nazi insignias, and iron crosses.
When we pulled into Boston harbor, the first thing I saw were fisherwomen shoveling fish out of their boats. There must have been a shortage of men during the war. The first new tune I heard was Sentimental Journey. It was very appropriate. After our trip down to Fort Dix, our whole unit was given a thirty day furlough. This was June 1945, and upon our return we were going to be sent to a B-29 unit to train for the Pacific War. I took the train home to Pittsburgh for the first time in over a year. The family had moved from the farm to Speers Hill. I had the new address and a picture of the house. After traveling all night and taking a street car from Pittsburgh to Speers, I walked up the hill at daybreak. I found the house and went up and knocked on the door. My father had just gotten up so he answered the door. He had a surprised and happy look on his face. No one expected me home at this time. Finns don't hug, but we can read each other's feelings. I was the first of his boys to get back from Europe. I put my heavy barracks bag down and was soon greeted by the rest of the family.
I spent a refreshing thirty days at home, and then I returned by train to Fort Dix. Again, this was a night train. When the train arrived at the Fort Dix stop, I was sleeping in my seat, and I did not get off the train. I awakened when the train arrived at New Brunswick. The conductor on the next train back to Fort Dix let me ride free of charge. Servicemen could get away with many things in those days.
Instead of B-29 training, I was sent to Great Falls, Montana to the Air Transport Command. This was a non-combat unit that ferried airplanes and hauled supplies. I wondered why this decision was made. Little did I know that they were building the atomic bomb down in the desert of New Mexico. My duties at this new base were strictly as a flight engineer. So I changed my wings from a bomb in the center to the round-centered air transport crew members' wings. I would not belong to any set crew. My duty was to join a pick-up crew of a pilot and co-pilot, and then the three of us would be flown to the west coast to pick up war-weary B-24's. We would fly these relics of the Pacific War to airfields in the south and southwest that were designated as junk yards. The pilots on these trips varied in skills. Some were combat veterans in the B-24. Others had just a check-out ride in the plane. Everything was uncertain in those fights. Many of the B-24's had been sitting on the ground for many weeks, and some of them really looked weary. As the Japanese war ended, many of these bases were taken over by civilian workers. It was my duty to inspect the plane before we flew it to the junkyard. I remember once when I complained to a civilian worker about the condition of the tires on a plane we were going to fly to Oklahoma. His reply was, Well, it's only going to the junkyard.
Despite the inherent dangers in the job, it was a fun time for me. On one trip a pilot who had an uncle living on a ranch in Montana decided he wanted to go visit him. We buzzed the ranch house at low altitude. This brought the rancher and his wife out of the house. On the second pass they were outside waving to us. We dipped our wings and left. If we wanted to stop somewhere, the pilots would have me write up some mechanical problem. One pilot wanted to visit his girlfriend in St. Joseph, Missouri, so he faked radio problems. We had an overnight stay in the city of his choice.
The war was slowly starting to wind down. In this air transport unit there seemed to be a more relaxed outlook. After you are in the service for awhile you learn to work within the bureaucracy. We engineers were supposed to report to the flight line (where airplane maintenance is done) when we were not on a trip. Two other engineers and myself decided we were not going to get involved in any meaningless tasks. If we did not report to the flight line, no one would miss us. We were right, no one missed us. We spent our time at the non-commissioned officers' club playing the pin-ball machines or listening to the juke-box. Some time was spent at the gym, also. One of the guys was a tough-looking fellow from Scranton whom we called Duke. Duke liked to sit at the N.C.O. Club listening to Claire De Lune on the juke-box while drinking beer. He didn't seem to be the type to like that kind of music. We got to know that record quite well.
In August I found a way to get another furlough. It wasn't through regular channels. I got to be home when the war with Japan was over. I remember going to downtown Charleroi to celebrate with the hundreds of other people there. The atomic bomb saved me from serving in the Pacific. It was devastating to Japan, but it saved thousands of American lives.
When I got back to Great Falls, the man that assigned me to flying trips was angry because he had not been able to find me. He told me that I should have gotten my furlough through him. If I had applied through him I never would have gotten away. This same gentleman also told me that the reason he was looking for me was that he wanted to send me to Alabama to B-29 engineers' school. At that time the B-29 was the airplane of the future. If I had received that training they probably would have kept me in the Air Force longer. At this point in time, with the war over, I was ready to get out.
Later in the fall I was sent to Long Beach, California. There was no need for us at Great Falls. Most of the B-24's were in the junkyards by now. Even the new ones were sent there. I recall reading the log book of a shiny new airplane that I saw jammed against the others at Altus, Oklahoma. This B-24 had six hours on it and had just been flown from the River Rouge factory to the junkyard. War is a terrible waste.
There was nothing to do at Long Beach. Everyone was waiting to be discharged. It finally happened when I was sent to Patterson Field in Ohio to be freed from my military obligations. During my discharge physical the doctor told me that I had a slight hearing loss in my left ear. He asked me if I wanted to stay a few days and get it checked out. I told him no thanks and that I wanted to go home. On December 1, 1945 they sewed the ruptured duck on my uniform and handed me my discharge papers. I was on my way home, and I was free at last.
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